Has anyone had a weird feeling these past few weeks?
I know a lot of you are basking in the glow of a recent fusillade of victories from the youth movement by the new look Phoenix Suns, but why not dream even bigger?
Sure, Robert Sarver wants to temper expectations by reinforcing the team probably won’t be in the championship conversation for at least three years, but is it possible that this stretch of impressive play could portend the rebuild is picking up steam?
A peek into the recent history of the bottom of the pack in the NBA shows that going from being a bottom three team in the league to making the playoffs isn’t as rare as you might think.
In fact, seven teams have pulled off the since the 2002/03 season.
Let’s take a quick look at how each of these team’s fortunes changed.
2003/04 43-39 8th seed, lost first round
How bad were the Denver Nuggets in the 2002/03 season?
Junior Harrington played the third most minutes of any player on the team that season.
Bonus points to anyone who actually remembers that Junior Harrington used to be a basketball player.
Juwan Howard and James Posey were the other headliners on a team that produced the second worst record in franchise history.
The Nuggets used their third pick in the 2003 draft to select Carmelo Anthony and the 19 year old phenom averaged 21.0 points per game to lead the team in scoring as a rookie. Add in the signing of 27 year old free agent point guard Andre Miller and Denver made a meteoric 26 game improvement.
This started a stretch of 10 consecutive playoff appearances for the Nuggets, who brought on George Karl to take over the coaching reigns. The team peaked in the 2008/09 season with a berth in the Western Conference Finals, before Anthony was eventually traded to the New York Knicks.
2004/05 47-35 4th seed, lost first round
The 2003/04 Chicago Bulls had Scottie Pippen, Antonio Davis, Jalen Rose, Kendall Gill and Donyell Marshall... unfortunately, they were all pretty much past their prime.
The young guys on the team were Jamal Crawford, Tyson Chandler, Kirk Hinrich and Eddy “Baby Shaq” Curry... but they weren’t ready to compete, either.
This became the perfect storm of opposite ends of the spectrum with a clear lack of players in their prime to carry the load. Surprisingly, the Bulls clawed back into the playoffs by getting even younger.
Rookies Luol Deng and Ben Gordon played major roles for the Bulls in the 2004/05 season and five of the Bulls top eight rotation players were under 22 years old. In Scott Skiles first full season as head coach the Bulls snapped a six season stretch of missing the playoffs after Michael Jordan left following his sixth championship.
2004/05 45-37 5th seed, lost in semifinals
Michael Jordan left the Wizards after the 2002/03 season, failing to drag the hapless Wizards to a playoff berth after a pair of 37 win campaigns.
In his absence, Washington managed to have 12 players post double digit starts in a 25 win campaign. Gilbert “Agent Zero” Arenas was a bright spot for the team, as the 22 year old free agent averaged 19.6 points per game to lead the team.
The fulcrum for the team’s resurgence was a summer trade for Antawn Jamison. Both Jamison and Arenas were selected as All-Stars during the 2004/05 season and Washington returned to the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the first time in 23 years.
Although the team appeared to poised to achieve sustainable success, the often bizarre and ultimately sad career of Agent Zero never led Washington into true title contention.
This was just another anomaly in a perpetual rebuild for Washington, as 2016/17 will be the first time in 37 years the Wizards have won more than 46 games.
2007/08 66-16 best record in NBA, won championship
The Celtics were in a very un-Celtics like situation, with perennial All-Star Paul Pierce missing his first All-Star game after five consecutive appearances and the team unable to build a winner around its star player in his prime (29 years old).
Al Jefferson was a promising prospect, but the team was bereft of talent for Doc Rivers to coach up. After a brief stretch of success where the team made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, Boston looked like they were starting their second major rebuild in franchise history.
That all changed in the blink of an eye when the Celtics traded most of their roster, including Jefferson, along with a couple first round picks in two separate trades that netted them hall of famers Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.
Rajon Rondo also stepped up into a starting role as the Celtics pulled off the most incredible turnaround in NBA history.
2008/09 43-39 5th seed, lost first round
The Heat were just two years removed from winning a championship and had somehow managed to become the worst team in the NBA.
Injuries (Wade) and age (O’Neal) played a role, but it’s still hard to accept that a team with Shaq and Wade could have failed this spectacularly. The Heat were just 8-25 in games Shaq played in when he was traded to the Suns for Shawn Marion.
The Heat rebounded the next year behind new coach Erik Spoelstra and a healthy Dwyane Wade, who lead the league in scoring, but it was two years later before the team really ascended into the NBA pantheon when LeBron James decided to bless South Beach with his talents.
2013/14 43-39 7th seed, lost in first round
21-61 may seem like an atrocious record, but the Bobcats were actually already on their way up after going 7-59 in the lockout shortened season.
Although the Bobcats did have a few young prospects on the team like Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the other best players were journeymen like Gerald Henderson and Ramon Sessions.
The Bobcats/Hornets have been an example of a team that has been bad, but not bad enough, for most of their franchise history. Despite missing the playoffs seven of the last ten seasons, Charlotte has only picked higher than ninth twice. Even when the team has had high picks they’ve squandered them on players like Cody Zeller and Adam Morrison.
The 2013/14 season was another case study in the race to mediocrity, as the team signed free agent Al Jefferson to make them better, but not great. The addition had the desired effect, I guess, as the team did return to the playoffs, but couldn’t have had a realistic view of having a ceiling they wouldn’t bump their head on.
2014/15 41-41 6th seed, lost first round
The 2013/14 season marked the first time in franchise history the team had failed to win 20 games.
I don’t know that I’m qualified to empathize with Bucks’ fans, but I imagine they didn’t take much solace in the fact that Brandon Knight was the team’s best player.
I do imagine, however, they were a little more bullish on young phenom Giannis Antetokounmpo, who I still struggle to believe fell to 13th in a draft where Anthony Bennett went #1 overall and the Suns took Alex Len 5th.
The next season Milwaukee decided to cut bait with Knight and ship him off to Phoenix, where he famously became the best player in the trade, coming or going.
Despite Milwaukee apparently punting on Knight and preparing for the future, the team crept back into the playoffs with an emphasis on defense instituted by new coach Jason Kidd.
While the Bucks haven’t taken the next step, they do have one of the brightest young stars in the league (Giannis) to build around.
2016/17 22-45 (27-55 pace)
The teams above have taken different paths back to the playoffs from the dregs of the league.
Some made modest moves with free agents or trades that worked out better than they probably augured to at the time, some had young players that made marked improvements... then there was the Celtics, who basically broke the matrix.
What this essentially shows, though, is that in the last 14 years seven teams have gone from bottom three to the playoffs the following season. That’s one in six.
So what do the Suns have in terms of encouragement they could be the eighth?
Can Devin Booker contribute as much to a team as Gilbert Arenas did for the Wizards?
Can the Suns get an instant contribution from this year’s lottery pick like the Nuggets did with Melo?
Can Marquese Chriss or Dragan Bender have a sophomore impact like Giannis?
While Eric Bledsoe is no Dwyane Wade, he’s playing about as well right now as any of the players on the preceding teams.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle for the Suns is the depth of talent in the Western Conference. While the landscape of the NBA is always somewhat fluid it seems likely that even an improved Suns team would be fighting for the seventh or eighth seed. While a case can be made for the Suns, it’s just as easy to argue that teams like Minnesota, Portland and Denver have room for improvement. Playing in the Eastern Conference would change the whole dynamic of this analysis.
I really do think at this point that the Suns have more reasons for optimism than many of the bottom three teams over the past few decades. I also think that the incubation period for this rebuild needs to be reaching it’s climax. When a team goes from drafting a player 5th overall to (potentially) watching him walk away as a free agent... that was their window.
There’s also no reason for a team to expect to have any more success playing the long game than there is through sudden, and often unexpected, moves.
The KJ/Barkley Suns happened in sweeping moves. 7SOL wasn’t developed on a 3-4 year plan. The logic what winning is hard and takes time is just a veil of excuses covering the mentality of a loser.
So while I understand that the Suns may not make the leap next year... that should be the goal of the players and the franchise.
These other seven teams did it.
So can the Suns.